July 27th, 2013
08:33 AM ET

Why millennials are leaving the church

Opinion by Rachel Held Evans, Special to CNN

(CNN) - At 32, I barely qualify as a millennial.

I wrote my first essay with a pen and paper, but by the time I graduated from college, I owned a cell phone and used Google as a verb.

I still remember the home phone numbers of my old high school friends, but don’t ask me to recite my husband’s without checking my contacts first.

I own mix tapes that include selections from Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but I’ve never planned a trip without Travelocity.

Despite having one foot in Generation X, I tend to identify most strongly with the attitudes and the ethos of the millennial generation, and because of this, I’m often asked to speak to my fellow evangelical leaders about why millennials are leaving the church.

Armed with the latest surveys, along with personal testimonies from friends and readers, I explain how young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

I point to research that shows young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness.

I talk about how the evangelical obsession with sex can make Christian living seem like little more than sticking to a list of rules, and how millennials long for faith communities in which they are safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt.

Invariably, after I’ve finished my presentation and opened the floor to questions, a pastor raises his hand and says, “So what you’re saying is we need hipper worship bands. …”

And I proceed to bang my head against the podium.

Time and again, the assumption among Christian leaders, and evangelical leaders in particular, is that the key to drawing twenty-somethings back to church is simply to make a few style updates - edgier music, more casual services, a coffee shop in the fellowship hall, a pastor who wears skinny jeans, an updated Web site that includes online giving.

But here’s the thing: Having been advertised to our whole lives, we millennials have highly sensitive BS meters, and we’re not easily impressed with consumerism or performances.

In fact, I would argue that church-as-performance is just one more thing driving us away from the church, and evangelicalism in particular.

Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions - Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. - precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.

What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.

We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.

We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.

We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.

We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.

We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.

You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.

Like every generation before ours and every generation after, deep down, we long for Jesus.

Now these trends are obviously true not only for millennials but also for many folks from other generations. Whenever I write about this topic, I hear from forty-somethings and grandmothers, Generation Xers and retirees, who send me messages in all caps that read “ME TOO!” So I don’t want to portray the divide as wider than it is.

But I would encourage church leaders eager to win millennials back to sit down and really talk with them about what they’re looking for and what they would like to contribute to a faith community.

Their answers might surprise you.

Rachel Held Evans is the author of "Evolving in Monkey Town" and "A Year of Biblical Womanhood." She blogs at rachelheldevans.com. The views expressed in this column belong to Rachel Held Evans.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Church • evangelicals • Opinion

soundoff (9,864 Responses)
  1. Just Call Me Lucifer

    32? You look 45 easy.

    July 31, 2013 at 7:07 pm |
    • Ern

      Exactly. If she can't even do what's most important for a woman, stay good looking and never look over 30, why should we listen to anything she says? All her points have been rebutted with this one comment.

      July 31, 2013 at 7:30 pm |
    • skytag

      That was childish. She does not look anywhere near 45.

      July 31, 2013 at 7:53 pm |
    • Shafman

      Ad hominem attacks are the last refuge of those without competent reasoning.

      July 31, 2013 at 10:12 pm |
  2. luvthyneighbor

    This article hits the nail on the head. When one reads the book of revelation and all it's predictions in it he/she can see that the current church is bringing them to reality. Driving wedges between people and God by judgement. This current pope I believe has come to the same conclusion. If you say you are a Christian then this generations expects you to try to do what Jesus would do. First, leave the judging to Jesus. Second, support the poor and not try to take away their benefits. Third, adhere to what Jesus says about gluttony and lusting after money. Fourth, love and not war. It amazes me how the republican party pushes for war, supports discrimination against minority groups like LGBT, lusts for wealth, doesn't want any social programs to help the poor and at the same time talk about being a good Christian. The new generation is capable of breaking through their brainwashing and thinking for themselves and actually reading the scriptures instead of allowing someone behind a podium to interpret it for them. Excellent Article! five stars!!!!

    July 31, 2013 at 6:53 pm |
    • skytag

      People have claimed the predictions in Revelations are being fulfilled for hundreds of years. What do you think the religious folk we saying at the outbreak of WWII? I have a CD of music composed in the latter part of the 10th century in anticipation of the world ending in 1000.

      July 31, 2013 at 7:50 pm |
      • Lee

        "Revelation" not "Revelations". The last book of the Bible is Revelation.

        July 31, 2013 at 8:50 pm |
        • My Dog is a jealous Dog

          If they were putting the bible together now, that book would have been named Trippin'

          August 2, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
  3. snooop1e

    The Evangelical/Protestant church cannot satisfy human hunger because they do not have the very body and blood of Jesus Christ that feeds the starving human soul. Only the flesh and blood of Jesus can satisfy our souls and Protestants abandoned the Eucharist a very long time ago.

    So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. For those who eat and drink without recognizing the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have died.

    – St Paul (1 Cor 11:27-30)

    Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God ... They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes.

    – St. Ignatius 110 A.D.:

    July 31, 2013 at 6:32 pm |
    • Just Call Me Lucifer

      Somebody call the guys in white with the big nets... another psycho got loose... this one is delusional.

      July 31, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
    • Agnostictheist

      You don't know what talking about. I used to attend a Methodist church that had communion every Sunday. Unlike Catholics who allow only Catholics to partake in communion, the Methodist invited everyone to the Lord's Table. Besides, I thought the Roman Catholic Church committed horrible atrocities against humanity in the name of saving souls from the eternal damnation.

      July 31, 2013 at 7:34 pm |
      • well

        Essentially all major sects with a long enough history has committed atrocities. Methodists trace their history through the Church of England, which is in some sense emerged as a mixture of Protestantism and Catholicism, both of which have committed plenty of atrocities against heretics and other enemies.

        I don't intend to paint all Christians as, therefore, bad, but rather contending the idea that it makes much sense to assert the superiority of Methodists because they didn't do these bad things, given that their antecedents are to varying degrees identical and/or not less known for atrocities. The denomination just didn't exist at the time.

        July 31, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
        • Agnostictheist

          I didn't mean to insinuate the Methodist or Protestants in general are superior, but then again, Protestants didn't hunt down, torture, and kill Catholics and non believers for not being Protestant. I know it's true, because my family was almost victimized by the Roman Catholic Church! All religion is bulls***, which why I'm a practicing Agnostic Theist (hence the screename).

          July 31, 2013 at 9:28 pm |
        • CatLover

          Protestants didn't didn’t hunt down, torture, and kill Catholics and non believers for not being Protestant? You'd better go back and take another read of your history. You're way out to lunch with that statement.

          July 31, 2013 at 9:36 pm |
        • well

          Protestants did many of these things actually, for example, torturing and killing many Anabaptists, to say nothing of many other instances with those deemed heretics.

          August 1, 2013 at 4:44 pm |
        • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

          Protestants didn't hunt down, torture, and kill Catholics and non believers for not being Protestant.

          Ummmm, yes they did. There's plenty of blood spilled by both sects. Go read up on the Thirty Years War (1618 – 1648). 8,000,000 Europeans were killed and they weren't all Protestants, trust me.

          July 31, 2013 at 9:45 pm |
  4. lathebiosas

    I found god in a soft womans hair, a long days work and a good sittin' chair, the ups and downs of a treble cleff line, and 5 miles to go on an interstate sign. My god don't need a middle man.

    Credit to the Avett brothers. Great song.

    July 31, 2013 at 6:01 pm |
    • CatLover

      Ad lib into that a nice slug of Jameson's or Bushmill's, while in that settin' chair.

      July 31, 2013 at 6:04 pm |
  5. John Quigley

    It's so easy to write about what you don't want, I didn't see any elements to replace all that should be discarded. I guess if the kitchen doesn't get any complaints, it won't change the menu. Churches not filling the seats is another way of the flock saying it doesn't like the menu. Unfortunately, a menu with just desert isn't always the most nutritional serving. Faith is a regimen as much as a belief. If you're not willing to put in the effort, you're not going to be anymore enlightened. Here's a bulletin,.. faith,belief and worship are all part of one's life's journey. There's no shortcuts unless you're like Paul who had visions and seizures to rewrite the New Testament. That's a risky chance!

    July 31, 2013 at 4:25 pm |
    • John Smith

      Paul rewrote the New Testament? Interesting. Also, she described what should go and what should be added, perhaps if you were what you're preaching, you would see that. No more bigotry, no more hypocrisy, no more hate, no more! This being said, to simplify more, we want the OPPOSITE!

      July 31, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
  6. Jennifer M.

    I couldn't agree more. I'm 34 and have been in the church my whole life, yet I find myself being drawn more and more to the formal traditions (Catholic, Orthodoxy, etc), especially the more "hip" the churches I attend try to be. A lot of churches these days seem very shallow to me – people with a list of rules to follow and who can't stop arguing about worship styles. Not a lot is done regarding social justice or actually getting to know Jesus – and after all, isn't that what the church is supposed to be about?

    July 31, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
    • niknak

      Churches and other houses of "worship" have zero to do with finding jeebus or god, but about making money and keeping the sheep all in a row.

      Religion is the biggest, longest running and most lucrative Ponzi scheme ever invented.....

      July 31, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
      • Rick

        Except for me I guess. And my kids. And my dad. Actually, just about everybody I know who knows Jesus came to belief through the church. Nice rant, but not correct.

        July 31, 2013 at 4:56 pm |
      • skytag

        I'm an atheist and even I think you sound nuts.

        July 31, 2013 at 7:52 pm |
    • Just Call Me Lucifer

      How does someone get to know a demi-god that never existed?

      July 31, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
    • skytag

      An important function of churches is to create communities and bond people together to encourage them to put the interests of "the group" ahead of their own self-interests. Apparently they've done studies showing that people are more charitable with their time and money when they are active in a church community than when they feel they are religions but don't belong to a church.

      July 31, 2013 at 7:59 pm |
  7. Joann

    I really liked this blog. Thank you for being honest. I am one of those Grandmothers...55 years old...not sure what we're called now. 🙂 My husband has been the Pastor of a very small church for a little more than 7 years. We have grown from 15 to 40 in those years with no special programs or worship band. I am the worship leader, my team is one great guy and my awesome sister who plays the guitar. We have a cross at the front of our sanctuary...sing songs that thank Jesus for His shed blood...we even sing hymns (gasp)...we follow some time honored traditions like Advent and we love on ANYONE who chooses to worship us!

    All that to ask this: why the trend to move to satellite churches? I have watched our old home church take over a church in a small community close to ours and make some drastic changes...removing the crosses from the sanctuary, replacing them with black walls studded with halved white balls...because the leadership doesn't want to "slap newcomers in the face with the cross" and eliminating all music that contains any mention of the Blood of Christ because "it can be offensive".

    It's confusing to me as to what people want...what do we need to do?

    July 31, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
    • Joann

      Oh MY...that should say worship WITH us...NOT worship us! 🙂

      July 31, 2013 at 10:00 pm |
  8. Anonymous

    Typical liberally slanted article.

    July 31, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
    • ElmerGantry

      Typical comment from a refugee FAUX NEWS commenter.

      July 31, 2013 at 7:13 pm |
      • skytag

        I thought he sounded like a Limbot, but you could be right.

        July 31, 2013 at 8:00 pm |
        • ElmerGantry

          Limbot or refugee FAUX NEWS commenter; is there much of a difference?

          July 31, 2013 at 8:12 pm |
    • sybaris

      and yet you read it

      July 31, 2013 at 8:14 pm |
  9. Ipsilon

    I would argue that millenials (and many others) are leaving the churches and loosing their faiths because "it just doesn't make any sense".

    July 31, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
    • nephilim

      LOSING, not LOOSING. Learn some grammar and spelling and maybe, just maybe, somebody might take you seriously.

      July 31, 2013 at 6:31 pm |
      • skytag

        "Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people." — Eleanor Roosevelt

        "Tiny minds discuss people's typos thinking it makes them look smart." — skytag

        July 31, 2013 at 8:05 pm |
        • ElmerGantry

          I like this. Mid if I used this with your addition skytag?

          July 31, 2013 at 8:28 pm |
        • ElmerGantry

          Ooooops! ...Mind...

          July 31, 2013 at 8:29 pm |
        • vanwiek

          You hit the nail on the head! Love it!

          August 1, 2013 at 7:51 am |
  10. Victor

    Give me a break people. All of religion, past, present, and future, can be explained with three words ... "FEAR OF DEATH".

    July 31, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
    • CatLover

      Yeah yeah yeah ... '... death is at your doorstep..." It's more than the simple fear of simple death ... it's fear of death at the hands of another. That's why there is so much emphasis on 'loving your neighbor.' Perhaps that will motivate him not to kill you. Perhaps. Probably not, in the long run, on the wider canvas, 'timshel' notwithstanding.


      July 31, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
    • skytag

      That's overly simplistic. I suspect gods were first invented to explain phenomenon people couldn't explain with their limited understanding of the world. What causes thunder? Why do people get sick? What causes earthquakes? Primitive people explained these things and more by inventing gods and evil spirits responsible for them. The get-out-of-death-free card came later.

      July 31, 2013 at 8:12 pm |
  11. Min

    I think a big issue here is the sense of community people get (or used to get) from belonging to a church. Prior to the advent of the internet, for many people, their church was their entire community. Outside of work and school, church is where they went to in order to make new friends and get involved in community activities. If people had doubts about their beliefs, quitting the church meant that they were also dropping out of their entire social community - heck, saying that you don't believe anymore ill get you shunned and ostracized in many churches. People ignored their doubts or rationalized them away because they wanted to still be a member of the community.

    Thanks to the internet, that's not necessary anymore. It's easy to meet people who have the same interests as you and won't hate you because you don't believe in the same god as them. If somebody has doubts about their church, it has become very easy to drop out and find a new community that will accept you.

    And that's why young people are leaving churches in droves: they've been taught to think critically and be skeptical, and they just can't rationalize what the church teaches with what they have personally observed.

    July 31, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
    • mags

      When the U.S. Army went to Europe in WWI and WWII and the Pacific as well, it opened a lot of eyes and overcame a lot of fortress mentality. They found that people everywhere are more alike than not. To come back to their home areas and discover small minds and even smaller hearts after all they have been through made a real difference in their outlook on spirituality let alone organized religion. A lot of these returnees were behind social ministry such as actually establishing food pantries, finding a number of places for the homeless to live and so on, even to lobbying for such things as Medicare and Meidcaid. All of this was covered by "the least of these" thinking. Hitching religion to a political party is not just a game changer but a game killer.

      July 31, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
    • skytag

      Interesting point.

      July 31, 2013 at 8:14 pm |
  12. Agnostictheist

    I agree, but my only point of contention is when Rachel states: "Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. Speak for yourself, I have nothing but disdain for high church traditions-especially Catholicism. I believe in El Shaddai (one of the names of God), but I'm areligious on the grounds that (all) religion, like politics, is used to control, manipulate, and divide a populace.

    July 31, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 100 101 102 103 104 105 106 107 108 109 110 111 112 113 114 115 116 117 118 119 120 121 122 123 124 125
About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.